C.S. Lewis understood better than most the spiritual warfare that rages, unseen for the most part, around all human beings.
And, as veterans of the bloody trenches of the First World War, Lewis and his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien had learned more than they desired about the tactics and sheer violence of combat.
Many of those wartime lessons translated directly into a spiritual context. However, I recently realized how poorly the concept of immobile trenches relates to our challenge to take up our crosses and follow our Savior.
You see, the Christian life is many things, but there is one thing discipleship never is – static. As theologian Tilemann Heshusius (1527-1588) wrote: “Christian soldiers always either advance or retreat.”
In battle there is nearly always an ebb and a flow, as forces advance on one front and temporarily shift back on another. In his essay “The World’s Last Night,” C.S. Lewis observes “In battle men save their lives sometimes by advancing and sometimes by retreating.” The same is true for the Christian life in general. We are either advancing, or falling back. Our relationship with God is not stagnant.
The New Testament includes many military metaphors and allusions, intended to equip us for victory in our spiritual battles.
The Apostle Paul refers to believers as “fellow soldiers.” In a letter to a young pastor, he extols the model of the soldier, who keeps his focus on the mission.
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.
Then there is the familiar passage which uses the image of the “whole armor of God” to describe in detail how Christians are to be prepared for faithful service. You can read the entire passage here.
These military accoutrements are necessary because “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
This is the reason one aspect of the Christian Church’s nature has been described as the “Church Militant.” This describes the Church battling evil while awaiting Christ’s return, for the Final Judgment, when it will become the “Church Triumphant.” The former is the context for familiar hymns such as “Onward Christian Soldiers,” composed by a prolific Anglican priest in the nineteenth century.
Onward, Christian soldiers,
marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
going on before!
Christ, the royal Master,
leads against the foe;
Forward into battle,
see his banner go!
. . .
At the sign of triumph
Satan’s host doth flee;
On, then, Christian soldiers,
on to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver
at the shout of praise;
Brothers, lift your voices,
loud your anthems raise.
The WWI trenches are the archetype of static, immobile frontlines. Disease festered, and morale decayed like the muck sucking at the soldiers’ boots. As recognized by sixteenth century theologians and C.S. Lewis alike, wars are rarely won simply by maintaining a defensive position. Movement is an essential element of warfare.
Hopefully more of that movement consists of advances against the enemy, than retreats. But we will consider that aspect of spiritual war in our next post.
Those interested in learning more about military strategy, particularly as explored by another veteran of the War to End All Wars, Sir B.H. Liddell Hart,* like Lewis and Tolkien, returned home to Britain from the front lines, as a casualty. (Britannica states more than a third of the British forces became casualties, in contrast to 76% of Russians, 73% of French, and 8% of Americans.)
Liddell Hart’s wisdom extends beyond the battlefield itself.
The downfall of civilized states tends to come not from the direct assaults of foes, but from internal decay combined with the consequences of exhaustion in war (“The Objective in War,” a lecture delivered in 1952 to the United States Naval War College).
* Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895-1970) was a military historian and theoretician. A number of his works are in the public domain and available for free download from Internet Archives. These include A Greater than Napoleon, Scipio Africanus and Why Don’t We Learn from History?
7 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Church Militant”
Yes on to battle believers. The real holy war. Have a Happy Easter,
Yes, happy Easter to you as well.
But right now we’re off to our Good Friday service. The necessary prelude to the Resurrection.
It is good to remember that our battle is not with flesh and blood, but one of spiritual warfare. In the darkness before the dawn, may our eyes be opened to see the angelic hosts of God arrayed around us even as we draw on the courage of our faith to stand firm.
Amen, Dora. We never battle evil alone.
Best of all, is that Christ already delivered the crushing blow at Calvary.
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Sobering thoughts. Thank you for spurring us on to courageously advance.
You are more than welcome, sister. And thank you for your encouragement.